With a single stroke on May 27, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai sidetracked the agenda of a constitution framed by elective representatives of the people when he dissolved the Constituent Assembly (CA). The CA had been a popular demand since the first democratic revolution of 1950-51. In his meeting with the media following the CA’s dissolution, the PM underlined the objective of new CA election on November 22. He said the objective was to achieve a two-third majority to establish a single-identity based ethnic federalism in the country.
The PM labeled opposition parties retrograde and status quoists as they were dead against federal restructuring of the state, and put the entire blame on them for the country’s failure to produce a constitution. His message to the diplomatic community was: “Despite honest efforts and maximum flexibility, some political forces remained adamant about not accommodating the issues and aspirations of Janajatis, Madhesis, Dalits, oppressed class people and people form backward regions.”
The PM’s campaign of denigrating political parties for the failure of his own leadership reminds one of ex-king Gyanendra’s days, who, following his February 1, 2005 takeover embarked on a systemic campaign to defame his opponents, silence their voices and projected himself as the sole arbiter of the nation’s destiny. The government’s intent to silence its critics is clear from its punishment of Nepal Television officials for covering opposition party meetings.
In February, the government chose to ignore the historic day of Falgun 7 (February 18) that ended the Rana family rule, established the honor and dignity of the people, set the country on the path of modernity and cemented its place among the comity of democratic nations back in 1951. It was believed that one of the big achievements of post-2006 politics was the safe-landing of the Maoists on democratic grounds. But their utter disregard of a historic day like Falgun 7 undermines their commitment to the democratic process. Falgun 7 is the mother of all progressive changes in Nepal and the government’s neglect of the historic day can only be seen as an attempt to reverse the country’s democratic course.
Democracy is not a single event, but a process, refined by constant effort of democratic actors at all times. The over 50 agreements signed since the start of the peace process express commitment to competitive multiparty governance, civil liberties, fundamental rights, human rights, adult franchise, periodic elections, full freedom of press, independence of judiciary and rule of law. However, there are huge discrepancies between commitments and practices. The political parties’ failure to implement past accords led to numerous hurdles in the peace process and the eventual demise of the CA.
The PM’s strategy appears to be targeting national institutions and delegitimizing the entire process. His government is making one unilateral decision after another even as the interim constitution mandates that the business of the government be conducted keeping in mind “the aspirations of the united people’s movement, political consensus, and culture of mutual cooperation.” The resulting institutional vacuum in the already crippled constitutional bodies due to the absence of parliamentary hearing committee and absence of any representative institutions to enforce government accountability will further complicate the situation, compounding the protracted transition and add to the fluidity of national politics, mainly because of the Maoist bid to ‘capture state power.’
Let us not forget, the Maoists started their armed struggle in 1996 against parliamentary democracy. But the fact that the party eventually had to join the democratic forces to bring about desired changes establishes that violence can never be an instrument in resolving political disagreements and addressing the demands inextricably linked to the Nepali nation and the life of its people. The People’s Movement of April 2006 firmly established that conflict is irrelevant, confrontation is useless and pointless, and only sincere engagement and negotiation can usher in positive changes that address people’s democratic aspirations. Despite having come a long way on the democratic path since November 2005, the Maoists (both the main Maoist parties) have yet to unambiguously renounce the use of violence in politics, and express their categorical commitment to universal democratic principles. UCPN (Maoist) chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s political document presented before the ongoing plenum talks of practicing democratic centralism in a more controlled way. This puts a question mark on the future of democracy in the country, renews the fear of the Maoists going back on their promises to the people by once again working towards a ‘people’s democracy’.
Constitution-making through CA was a bid to give people ownership of the new constitution, put the conflict behind and strengthen the common goal of building a unified and strong nation. The political agreements since 2006 provide a basis to negotiate and lay the foundation for national democratic institutions. Given the status of their implementation, the peace accords have been strategic for the Maoists rather than an important contribution to the national polity. That they have not been sincere in their commitment to peace and constitution is manifested in their sidelining of pressing issues and diverting the attention of other parties to peripheral issues. Their demand of fresh CA polls not only lies outside constitutional purview but could revive the dirty politicking of the last four years, which in turn will exacerbate the country’s vulnerabilities.
From the geopolitical perspective, a protracted transition is detrimental to long-term national interest. The first, best, and surest way to secure the future of Nepali people is to project internal unity, create national democratic institutions, and strengthen the foundations of nationalism. Nepal needs to be mindful of its strategic importance, focus on priorities, and identify opportunities and challenges. With its diplomatic profile, the important role in the United Nations that it has been playing and its commitment to work with the international community, its growing strategic significance with tremendous water resources, and the increasing export of its human resources, Nepal has immense development possibilities despite the protracted democratic transition. The country should now seize the opportunities to meet future challenges.
The lack of Maoists’ democratic credentials has been amply illustrated during PM Bhattarai’s tenure.
As the visionary leader B P Koirala said in 1978, “If Nepal has to exist as a nation or develop as a nation, it must develop democratic institutions”. Democracy and nationalism have come to be conjoined twins in Nepal. At a time the foundations of Nepali nationalism appears vulnerable, democratic pluralism is a precondition to accommodate the diversity of interests, protect the rights of people, promote the inclusion of Janajatis, Madhesis, Dalits, oppressed class people, and people from backward regions at various levels of state structure and address their demands for the larger benefit of the people. This will in turn allow Nepal to win the trust and confidence of friends and well-wishers in the international community.
The author is former ambassador/permanent representative of Nepal to the United Nations